Vuelta a Espana preview: The key contenders

If the riders make the race (and yes, they really do), then what is in store for us at this year’s Vuelta? Last year was a rip-roaring three-way joust for the top step of the podium and given the strong field of GC contenders and the magnificent parcours  (11 summit finishes!), this year’s race should be a thriller! So let’s have a look at the field and what odds the bookies are offering.

The main man

The bookies and many people’s favourite at 9/4 is Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). He’s targetting the world championships so will he race to win in Spain? He has been quoted as saying he’d like to win all the Grand Tours and a World Championship. He won the Vuelta back in 2010 so I would expect him to peak for Toscane 2013 on a parcours almost custom-built for him. If you’ve read Tim’s tactical analysis you’ll know that no one has won the Vuelta and the World Championship in the same year, but there’s always a first time.

All conquering Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali (Image: Giro d'Italia)

All conquering Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali (Image: Giro d’Italia)

After Nibali’s long rest after the Giro, he has been tuning up at the Tour de Pologne and Vuelta a Burgos. While the race route will be to his liking, I think it will find even greater favour with the Spaniards and Colombians who don’t possess (and don’t need to at this grand tour) Nibali’s prowess on a time-trial bike. The Shark’s not as explosive a rider as Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) or Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) but he can hang with the best of them and is fearless on the descents. As we saw in last year’s Vuelta, the race isn’t necessarily won on the most mountainous stage – it takes smarts to win grand tours and Nibali has now won two, could this be number three?

The Spanish Armada

Smarting from his stage 17 denouement in last year’s Vuelta, Joaquim Rodriguez is Mr Consistency – a quality that helped him take the 3rd step of the Tour de France podium and he possesses lightening acceleration on the steepest of climbs, thanks to his power-to-weight ratio. If he’s ever going to win a Grand Tour, it should be this one, with a parcours light on traditional time-trial kilometres. He has said he’s finding it hard to recover from the Tour but is that the truth or sandbagging? We’ll find out soon enough but meanwhile the bookies have him once more as chief bridesmaid at 3/1.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), another former Vuelta and multi-stage winner, had a disappointing Tour after his disastrous puncture on stage 10. Nevertheless, he still managed to finish eighth; he’s nothing if not tenacious. He’s one of the few climbers who can weather savage accelerations and still sprint to the finish line. He’s a rider with a point to prove, he’s bringing a great squad with him and you wouldn’t bet against him getting on the podium. The bookies agree, they have him at 9/2.

Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) may not be defending his crown but we’ll still have a trio of Spaniards, with Samu Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) stepping up to the plate in what is likely to be his team’s last ever grand tour. He had, by his standards, a disappointing Giro d’Italia (12th overall) and if there’s any justice Samu, a runner-up in 2009, should stand on the top step of the podium. But with only a win in the Dauphine queen stage to his name this year, he will most likely be aiming for a stage win and a podium placement. The bookies agree as he’s 22/1.

Could Samu have a fairytale swansong with Euskaltel? (image: Euskaltel)

Could Samu have a fairytale swansong with Euskaltel? (image: Euskaltel)

The climbing Colombians

Taking on the experienced Spanish Armada, we have a trio of young Colombians who can all climb with ease. First up, Rigoberto Uran (Sky), who was runner up in both last year’s Olympic road race and this year’s Giro d’Italia, where he started in support of Bradley Wiggins before being set free by Wiggins’ abandonment. This time he’ll be riding in support of Sky’s other Colombian, Sergio Henao, who was third in the Tour de Pologne and Vuelta al Pais Vasco. As a consequence, the bookies have Henao at 12/1 and Uran at 28/1.

In the battle of the Colombians, will Henao shade it over Betancur again?

In the battle of the Colombians, will Henao shade it over Betancur again?

23-year old Carlos Betancur (Ag2r) completes the South American triumvirate. Best Young Rider and fourth overall in the Giro, he’s gone from 28/1 to 16/1 – obviously attracting a fair bit of attention and money. His team isn’t as strong as Sky’s, but then few are. I wonder what odds they’d give on Colombia taking a clean sweep of Grand Tour runners-up spots?

Italian allies

Of course Nibali is not the only Italian leading a team, there’s also Ivan Basso (Cannondale) at 22/1, back from injury and keen to secure a contract for next year. So if it all goes pear-shaped, could we find him giving Nibali a hand? And what about Lampre’s Michele Scarponi (100/1), might he too throw his lot in with Nibali so that we have a scenario of Three Italians v Three Spaniards v Three Colombians? Of course,  Roman Kreuziger is also in the race and leading a heavyweight  team – in terms of talent –  for Saxo-Tinkoff. The bookies have him at 50/1, even after his excellent fifth overall in the Tour where he seemingly dragged Contador up the climbs. The bookies, however, are taking most bets for Nibali, Betancur and Henao.

Mountains classification

Last year’s winner Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) is back to defend his spots but the bookies only have him at 16/1. They believe, given the 11 summit finishes, that the jersey will be won by one of the GC contenders. They have Rodriguez at 11/2 and Valverde at 7/1 with Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural), who has blossomed in his new role as team leader at the wild-card ProConti squad, interestingly at 13/2.

Amets looking good in spots (image: Richard Whatley)

Amets looking good in spots (image: Richard Whatley)

Continuing in this theme, the bookies have Nibali at 12/1, Betancur at 11/1 and Henao at 18/1. I suspect that the wild-card teams will target the KOM jersey in the early stages, expecting to lose it as the race progresses. However, if the leading contenders start marking one another closely, it could be someone like Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) (33/1) or Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) (25/1) who carries off the jersey.

Points classification

Like last year, the profile of the route means the points classification is weighted towards the pure, explosive climbers rather than their pure, explosive sprint counterparts. This is reflected in the bookies’ odds, with most of the top identified riders being climbers. Valverde is favourite at 9/4, with Rodriguez at 11/4, Nibali at 11/2 and Betancur at 9/1.

With only six stages (2, 3, 7, 12, 17 and 21) earmarked for the sprinters, the odds of them bringing home the bacon, along with the jersey, vary from Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) at 16/1 to Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) at 50/1 with Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) at 20/1, Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) at 25/1 and Theo Bos (Belkin) at 40/1. The smart money seems to agree as this week the odds have narrowed for the GC contenders and widened for the sprinters.

Can anyone match Degenkolb's five-star Vuelta performance? (image: Susi Goetze)

Can anyone match John Degenkolb’s five-star Vuelta performance? (image: Susi Goetze)

Given that it’s likely a breakaway will scoop up at least one of these stages, particularly one of the later ones, it’s hard to see any of these riders gaining much more than a stage win or two at best. The trio of monster climbing days that concludes the first week (stages 8-10) or the quartet at the end of week two (stages 13 – 16) may prompt a number of sprinters to climb off their bikes and head for the beach. On the other hand, with none of the big sprinting guns – Cavendish, Kittel, Sagan, Greipel, Goss – present, it’s a real chance for someone new to shine like John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) did last year. Maybe this is where Philippe Gilbert (BMC) disproves the curse of the rainbow jersey or OPQS’s Eneco star Zdenek Stybar (125/1) dazzles.

Team competition

After their success in the Tour de France, Saxo-Tinkoff have the best odds at 12/5, which would intimate good overall placings by Messrs Kreuziger, Roche and Majka  – all three figure in the odds to make the top-ten overall.

Agur, adios, adieu, farewell.......(image: Euskaltel Euskadi)

Agur, adios, adieu, farewell (image: Euskaltel Euskadi)

However, it gladdened my heart to see that Euskaltel-Euskadi had the next best odds at 11/4, implying at least top-20 places for a number of their riders. It would be nice for them to head off into oblivion with this award, wouldn’t it? Astana are at 7/2, Movistar at 4/1 and Ag2r La Mondiale at 14/1.

Finally, Alex Rasmussen (Garmin-Sharp) is odds-on favourite at 5/1 to be la linterna roja (lantern rouge), Movistar are 6/1 on to win the most stages and so it figures that Valverde is red-hot favourite (1/1) to wear the leader’s jersey for the most number of days, even though Rodriguez is 11/10 favourite to win most stages.

So now that you’ve digested all this, you can go pick your Velogames fantasy team!

VeloVoices Vuelta a Espana previews

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Key stages

Links: Vuelta a Espana official website, Velogames (don’t forget to join the VeloVoices league once you’ve picked your team!)

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